The Season of Creation, every September

When the Common Lectionary was created in 1983, it followed the pattern of the Roman Catholic Lectionary Mass (1969), with seasons focussing on the traditional calendar of the church year: Advent in preparation for Christmas, then Epiphany; Lent in preparation for Easter, then Pentecost Sunday. This took half of the calendar year (from late November to late May or early June, depending on the moveable dating of Easter each year).

For the other half of the year, there was a long period of “Sundays in Pentecost”. They were also called “Ordinary Sundays”, in recognition of the fact that they did not fall in the special seasons already noted; or “Proper”, derived from the Latin proprium, which referred to the parts of the liturgy which changed according to what was proper, or appropriate, to the day.

The Revised Common Lectionary (1992) continues this pattern, and is followed in many churches around the globe. Although created by a task force that was almost all-male (Gail Ramshaw was the only female member) and almost entirely Protestant (John Fitzsimmons was the sole Roman Catholic member), this lectionary is now used by almost 50 major Protestant denominations around the world.

In 1989, the Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I (head of the Eastern Orthodox Church) declared 1 September to be a day of prayer for the natural environment. In 2008, the World Council of Churches invited all churches to observe a Time for Creation from 1 September to 4 October—the day which had long been kept as the feast day for St Francis of Assisi.

In 2019, Pope Francis adopted the Season of Creation for Roman Catholic worship. And so, in many churches around the world, September is now designated as a time to focus on Creation—a truly ecumenical festive season, involving Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches alike.

Saint Francis, of course, is remembered for his simplicity of living, as well as his care for the natural environment. His Canticle of the Sun (found in modern hymnals—AHB 3, and TiS 100, for instance) is a well-loved poem which praises all the elements of the natural environment and the cycle of life.

The current issue of With Love to the World, which I edit, is designated as the Creation issue. It starts before September and runs on into November; but at the heart is the Season of Creation. This year, we are extending the Season of Creation through the whole issue. Each week, three passages from Hebrew Scripture, chosen for what they say regarding the creation, are placed alongside the regular four passages from the lectionary.

Commentaries on each passage are offered from a different contributor each week, along with questions for discussion, a song that matches the theme, and a focus prayer for each day. There is an introduction to the additional biblical passages used in the Creation 2022 issue on my blog at https://johntsquires.com/2022/05/29/the-season-of-creation-in-with-love-to-the-world/

And there is a stunning cover photo, contributed by the Revd Sophie Lizares, who ministers in a Uniting Church congregation in Perth.

Contributors have been asked to focus on questions relating to care of the environment, living sustainably, and demonstrating responsible stewardship of the earth’s resources, as integral to the life of discipleship to which we are all called. It is an experiment in reading the passage each day with focus issues in mind. My hope is that this way of proceeding in this issue will prove valuable to subscribers to With Love to the World.

With Love to the World can be ordered as a printed resource for just $24 for a year’s subscription (see http://www.withlovetotheworld.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Ordering-and-paying-for-Website-7.vii_.2020.pdf) or it can be accessed on phones and iPads via an App, for a subscription of $24.49 per year (go to the App Store or Google Play).

Apologetics and apologising: two ways of being church

Over the last few weeks I have been watching yet another church engage in the painful and difficult process of disagreeing publically about matters that are held strongly by the various proponents involved, with the inevitable trajectory of increasing rancour and ultimate schism becoming clearer each day.

We have already seen the slow-burn amongst Methodists over recent years that has led to the formation of the so-called Global Methodist Church earlier this year. The GMC was launched as a sectarian schismatic movement, splitting from the United Methodist Church, on the basis of—you guessed it—sexuality.

See my earlier post on this:

I’ve already discussed the attempts over many years to do the same within the Uniting Church in Australia—from the early efforts of the Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU) through the Reforming Alliance (RA) and on into the self-styled Assembly of Confessing Churches (ACC). Each of these conservative splinter groups sought to enforce their narrow and retrograde understanding of matters pertaining sexuality on the whole UCA—with persistent, and increasing, failure.

My posts on these various groups are at

and

As I’ve explored these two church contexts, one in Australia and the other in the USA, I have noticed how the proponents of the conservative theological perspective buttress their claims with a particular way of reading scripture, and with a particular mode of theological argumentation that slots well into the field called Apologetics.

That’s the name given to a way of arguing that sets out a collection of beliefs that are held by a certain group and advocates that this cluster of beliefs represents right doctrine, the true faith, what Bible-believing Christians hold to, or some other catchphrase that revolves around being right—and others, holding different viewpoints, being wrong. It’s a style of speaking and writing that often, in these kinds of situations, takes on a hard edge—moving from assertions about beliefs, to a much more aggressive manner of apologetic argumentation.

(I should indicate that I have nothing against Apologetics; done well, it can be a helpful process, and indeed, being able to engage apologetically ought to be a basic skill for anyone undertaking a missional engagement with people in society. And I should confess that the research that I did, many years ago, for my PhD thesis, was focussed on a set of ancient documents that are often described as being apologetic—including the writings of Flavius Josephus, and the two books in the New Testament attributed to Luke, namely, the Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles—two fundamental apologetic works in the Christian canon.)

In recent weeks, I’ve been an interested observer “from the sidelines”, watching an aggressively dogmatic style of apologetic argumentation that has been taking place within the Anglican Communion. The holding of the recent Lambeth Conference in the UK was the focus for the surfacing in the public arena of this aggressive argumentative apologetics (which we know was always active under the surface).

Episcopal leaders from Anglican churches around the globe gathered (or, at least, were expected to gather—not all of them came) in Lambeth, hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, to discuss designated matters and to issue “Calls” to the Anglican Church around the world, relating to these topics.

Sexuality, of course, was the most contentious area to be discussed; and so it transpired, with some bishops refusing to attend, some bishops decrying the stance of other bishops, and some bishops seeking to find a way forward that all could hold to. It was a fraught, and ultimately failed, enterprise. The battle-lines, drawn so strongly before Lambeth 2022, remained in place; so much so that, this week, the head of the breakaway schismatics in Australia, GAFCON Australia, has announced the formation of a new Diocese, “an Anglican home for those who feel they need to leave their current Dioceses”. Doctrinal Apologetics are, in my mind, clearly driving this development.

I’m not making further substantive comment on the trench-warfare of my brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion—I am most grateful to friends and colleagues who have posted numerous articles, commentaries, statements, and analyses, of what has happened before, during, and now after the Lambeth Conference. Nothing, it seems, was clarified, other than perpetual disagreement will continue.

The best that those of us outside that denomination can do is to offer prayerful and personal support to those who continue to press for a compassionate and relevant approach to matters of gender and sexual identity.

It is worth noting that there has been a local manifestation of this issue within Australia—it has, of course, been “alive and well” for many years, and has recently come strongly to the surface in the wake of the recent General Synod of the Anglican Church in Australia (ACA), and the formation of the Southern Cross Diocese, an action that has created, de facto, a new denomination in Australia, outside the formal structures of the ACA.

However, as the Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia has said in his statement about this development, “in a tragically divided world God’s call and therefore the church’s role includes showing how to live together with difference. Not merely showing tolerance but receiving the other as a gift from God.” See https://adelaideguardian.com/2022/08/18/a-statement-on-the-launch-of-the-company-the-diocese-of-the-southern-cross/

*****

Alongside the experience of watching Anglicans agitate and argue about sexuality, I’m engaged in a parallel, but rather different, process, within my own denomination. It’s a process that also arises out of consideration of sexuality—well, both gender identity and sexual attraction and behaviour, to be perfectly clear. It is characterised, not by a process of apologetic argumentation, but rather by a process of listening, engaging in conversations, and developing resources that will be fit for a specific purpose.

I am referring to the fact that, within the Uniting Church, there is currently a Task Group which has been established by the Assembly Standing Committee, to prepare for the offering of an Apology to members of the LGBTIQA+ people in Australia.

A proposal to offer such an apology was presented to the National Assembly in 2018, as a result of which the Task Group was established, with a view to having a final report to give to the Assembly when it meets in 2024. (Yes, things move slowly in this church, as in other churches!) The Apology, it is envisaged, will apologise for the church’s role in the silence, rejection, discrimination and stereotyping of LGBTIQ people, couples and families.

The Task Group is currently engaged in a series of listening encounters with members of the LGBTIQA+ community within the Uniting Church, to hear the views of such people about the proposed apology. I was present earlier this week as three members of the Task Group met with members of the Rainbow Christian Alliance, which meets monthly at Tuggeranong Uniting Church in Canberra, a congregation which is an open and affirming church.

The work of the Task Group was explained, and there was opportunity for LGBTIQA+ people who were present in person and online to make comments about their experiences in the church, and their hopes for the process of formulating and delivering the apology.

The conversation was respectful, caring, and person-centred. There was an indication that the Uniting Church had recognised how words and actions from many church people over many years have caused hurt, grief, and despair. There was a recognition that we need to demonstrate that we see, hear, acknowledge, value, and honour LGBTIQA+ people in their own right, as they are, without reservation, and certainly without in any way pressuring them to change.

It struck me during this time of conversation how different the two approaches are; those who take an aggressively apologetic stance towards people who hold a different point of view, and seek to prosecute their case through debate and argumentation, are presenting a very different model of church to that offered by the process of listening to LGBTIQA+ people in order to develop an apology to them.

(I’m not saying that we in the Uniting Church have got this right—not at all—just that we are aware of the need to take care in our stance, and to shape a careful and compassionate path; and that we are trying to do this with good intentions and in partnership with LGBTIQA+ people.)

Given all the negativity that currently exists in society in relation to “the church”, I think it is important that we carefully consider how we present ourselves to people in that wider society. A posture of compassionate listening and respectful conversation, and the offering of a deeply-felt apology, is surely what we need for our times.

*****

The ecumenical group Equal Voices has prepared an Apology for consideration by people of all denominations; see https://equalvoices.org.au/apologise/

Australian Catholics for Equality have prepared a liturgy for making an apology to LGBTIQ people, at https://australiancatholicsforequality.org/prayer-reflections/order-of-service-for-lament-and-apology-liturgy-to-lgbtiq/

On the 2016 comments of Pope Francis about the need to apologise “to gays and others who have been offended or exploited by the church”, see https://edition.cnn.com/2016/06/26/world/pope-apologize-gays/index.html

On the Apology that was subsequently offered by one Roman Catholic Church in Sydney, see https://www.starobserver.com.au/news/sydneys-catholics-apology-to-lgbti-people/151997

For the 2019 apology from the Adelaide Anglican Diocese, see https://adelaideanglicans.com/safe-ministry/apology-to-lgbtiq-communities/

For the 2017 apology from the Perth Anglican Diocese, see https://equal-eyes.org/database/2017/10/14/australia-perths-anglican-church-offers-heartfelt-apology-to-lgbt-community

On the symbolic action undertaken in 2014 to signal an apology by a local Anglican Church in Melbourne, see https://www.stmarksfitzroy.com/lgbti-community

NAIDOC WEEK and Uniting Church theology

This week, during NAIDOC WEEK, it is an opportune time to reflect on the situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this nation. NAIDOC Week runs from the first Sunday in July until the following Sunday. This year, it starts today (3 July) and goes until 10 July.

The acronym NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. It has its roots in the 1938 Day of Mourning which became a week- long event in 1975. The week is a time to celebrate Aboriginal and Islander history, culture and achievements.

It’s an undeniable—and unchangeable—fact that the Uniting Church took some time to arrive at the place where it finds itself today, in terms of its relationship with the First Peoples of the continent we call Australia, and the many islands that surround it.

Looking back, we can see the key steps that occurred to bring us to the present position, which places relationships with the First Peoples and advocacy for sovereignty and treaty at the centre of our commitments. It hasn’t always been an easy relationship, and there have been some difficult moments that required careful conversation to resolve, but some significant step have been taken over the years.

The first thing to note is that at the inauguration of the church in 1977, there was little (if any) attention paid to Indigenous matters. In terms of relationships with First Peoples, it was not an auspicious start. The inauguration service had no Aboriginal participation or recognition. There was no mention in either the Basis of Union or the Constitution of Indigenous people.

Whilst the Basis has remained virtually unchanged (apart from the minor wording changes of 1992), the Constitution now includes a revised preamble (adopted in 2009) which recognises the First Peoples, confesses our complicity in how they were treated from the time of colonisation, acknowledges the centrality of spirituality in their cultures, and even declares that the Spirit was already in the land, revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony.

Is it still timely for us to consider a parallel change to the Basis of Union? I’ve canvassed that thought in another blog, but I suspect that the appetite for this change in the church at this time is small. See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/23/what-is-missing-from-the-basis-of-union/

Nor was there any mention of Aboriginal or Islander peoples in the 1977 Statement to the Nation. That Statement mentioned our commitment as a church to be a “sign of the reconciliation we seek for the whole human race”, and stated our intention to “seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur”; but it fails to mention Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders in any way.

See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/20/alongside-the-basis-of-union-there-was-the-statement-to-the-nation/

This was a striking omission, as Aboriginal issues had already been to the fore in the previous decade, leading to the famous 1967 Referendum decision which altered the Australian Constitution to provide for recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the population of Australia. See https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/1967-referendum

This unfortunate oversight was addressed in 1988, when a second Statement to the Nation was issued for Bicentennial celebrations of the founding of modern Australia. In this Statement, the church declared that “The integrity of our nation requires truth; the history of Australia, as it is taught in educational institutions or popularised in the media, must cease to conceal the reality and nature of Aboriginal society before invasion, what was done to them in colonisation, and what has been the fate and status of Aborigines within the Australian nation. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/introduction/item/133-statement-to-the-nation-australian-bicentennial-year-1988

There had been strenuous debate at the national Assembly in 1985, as to whether the Uniting Church should participate in those celebrations; in the end, we did, although some members joined the 26 January protest held at the same time as the commemoration of the arrival of the First Fleet, marching under a banner that asked, 1988: what’s there to celebrate? See https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/history/The_1988_Bicentenary_Protest

Some of the key markers that we can paint to are obvious: in 1985, the establishment of the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress; in 1994, the formalising of the Covenant between Congress and the Uniting Church, sealed by the then Chairperson and President of those bodies, respectively.

In 2005, Uniting in Worship 2 included wording for an Acknowledgement of Country to be used in Uniting Church worship services (see p. 239, in the section entitled “Resources for the Service of the Lord’s Day”. Many Uniting Church services of worship now include an Acknowledgement of Country as a matter of course.

Other moments of symbolic significance no doubt come to mind, such as when the appropriate Congress leader was invited to sit alongside the President of Assembly or the Moderator of a Synod, to signal our joint commitment to one another. My special memory of this was the 2011 Synod of NSW.ACT, when each morning began, not only with prayer, but with storytelling from a local Indigenous elder. That was the moment when, in my Synod, Indigenous voices were highlighted, heard, and valued.

There have been Walking on Country opportunities, the development and implementation of Reconciliation Action Plans by Uniting, Synod Boards, and Presbyteries, and the formation in 2018 of the Walking Together as First and Second Peoples Assembly Circle of Interest, which draws almost 300 Uniting Church members together through social media, to share news and develop ideas relating our commitment to reconciliation, to forging a destiny together, as the final, clause of the Revised Preamble to the Constitution states.

As I reflect on this history during NAIDOC WEEK 2022, I am reminded of the ways that the theological commitment of the Uniting Church has been focussed and refined in order to give priority to First Peoples and to crystallise our commitment to working together, seeking justice, advocating for and serving the needs and hopes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

And as I have looked back over the themes of NAIDOC WEEK over the past decade (see the links at the end of this post), I have been strengthened in my understanding that the Uniting Church has a deep-seated and thoroughgoing commitment to the hopes and ideals expressed by First Peoples through those decades. I’ll reflect on that in my next post in the series about NAIDOC WEEK.

For previous posts on NAIDOC WEEK, see

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! (Gal 6; Pentecost 4C)

This coming Sunday, the lectionary offers us a final section from Paul’s letter to the Galatians (6:1-16). In recent blogs on this letter, we’ve seen that Paul writes to the churches in Galatia with passion. He can be aggressive and cutting with his language. He writes as a person deeply convinced about what he is saying, intensely aggrieved by the resistance he has encountered, and fully committed—heart and mind, body and soul, and all his words—to the message he brings.

See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/21/perverting-and-confusing-biting-and-devouring-bewitched-and-confused-gal-5-pentecost-3c/

Paul was an innovator. Nowhere is this evident more than in his letter to the Galatians. It is clear that Paul knows, and appreciates, the worth of the Jewish tradition and culture in which he has been raised. In his letter to the Romans, he quotes a number of the Ten Words, which sat at the heart of the Law (Rom 13:9–10) and he praises these commandments as “holy and just and good” (Rom 7:12).

Paul’s own heritage as a Pharisee (Phil 3:5; Acts 23:6; 26:5) shaped the way that he valued and used scripture. His understanding is that Jesus has brought the Law to its final, climactic fulfilment (this is how teleios should be rendered in Rom 10:4; and see Gal 5:14; Rom 13:10). And yet, in writing to the Galatians, he criticises them for their adherence to this same Law.

We have noted in an earlier blog post that Paul argues that the gospel he proclaims brings believers into the unity of being “one in Christ” (3:28). This unity overshadows all divisions—as the most famous words in this letter declare, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (3:28). The incorporation of Gentiles into the community alongside Jews was fundamental for Paul.

See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/19/inclusion-welcome-unity-gal-3-pentecost-2c/

Yet Paul shows awareness of a significant threat against this unity in Galatia; it has arisen through the insistence of teachers who do not have Paul’s way of seeing things, who insist that true faith in Jesus requires, first of all, circumcision. This is the group which Paul calls “the circumcision faction” (2:12; compare Acts 15:1, 5). They are advocating that the sign par excellence of being a Jew (for males, st least)—that of circumcision (Gen 9:9–14; Lev 12:1–3; Josh 5:2–9)—must continue to be practised by those who come to faith in Jesus.

Paul was always on high alert regarding people teaching differently from him (see Phil 1:15–18, 3:2–4; 2 Cor 10:5, 12, 18, 11:4–6, 12–15; and perhaps reflected in the ‘slogans’ of 1 Cor 6:12–13, 7:1, 8:1–2, 10:23). Here, he criticises the teachers in Galatia because they want their followers to be circumcised (6:12)—although he notes that they themselves, surprisingly, “do not obey the law” (6:13). This contradicts Paul’s understanding that every circumcised male “is obliged to obey the entire law” (5:3). But they teach that circumcision is necessary for (male) followers of Jesus.

Paul’s problem, of course, is that he himself is circumcised, as he mentions at Phil 3:5 (a fact which he omits when he rehearses his past at Gal 1:13–14). How can he advocate the opening of the faith to those who are not circumcised, when he himself bears this sign of the covenant?

He boldly insists that the Galatians “become as I am” (4:12), and yet threatens that “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (5:2). The believers in Galatia , it would seem, were Gentiles who had previously worshipped “beings that by nature are not gods”, namely, “the weak and beggarly elemental spirits” (Gal 4:8–10). What applied to these Gentile converts must be different from what is the case amongst Jewish converts, Paul maintained.

Paul makes his case against circumcision for converted Gentiles by re-interpreting the scriptural passage which lies behind this Jewish custom. It was Abraham who was the patriarch to whom the requirement of circumcision was first commanded, to be a sign of the covenant (Gen 17). So the story of Abraham needs to be addressed.

It is striking that Paul explains the story of Abraham without once mentioning circumcision (3:6–18). According to Paul, it is the faith of Abraham, in believing God’s promise, which secured him righteousness (3:6–7) and opens the promise to Gentiles (3:8–9). It is that promise which is now fulfilled in Christ (3:13–14, 16, 29). This compact argument in this letter would form the basis for the more expansive exposition that Paul,provides in his letter to the Romans.

Circumcision is central to the Law, and the Law is the basis of the promise that God has made, to Israel, and then to believers in Christ. Paul asserts that the Law supports the promise, in its role as a paidagogos (3:21–24). This word described a position in Greek society in which a tutor both instructs and disciplines a young man until he reaches his maturity. Now that maturity has arrived, in Christ, the paidagogos is no longer needed (3:25).

Paul has earlier asserted that doing “the works of the Law” does not result in justification (2:16); he cites Hab 2:4 to affirm that “the one who is righteous will live by faith” (3:11)—the same scriptural text which forms the basis for his argument in Romans. Does he portray the Law as now completely irrelevant? He does not draw this conclusion, and insists that “the Law is not opposed to the promises of God” (3:21).

Paul supports his position with an argument drawn from “the Law”, that is, Hebrew scripture—the accounts of the two children of Abraham (found in Gen 16 and 21) provides an allegory for the two covenants made by God (4:21–31). Believers are heirs of the free woman, Sarah; Jews are heirs of the slave woman, Hagar. This leads to a firm rhetorical conclusion for the Galatians: “for freedom, Christ has set us free” (5:1).

The point fits well with the situation which he addresses; it does a disservice, however, to his opponents, who were putting a position that had long been supported by Jewish tradition and scripture. And if Paul was really wanting to create unity within the church, then he has unfairly caricatured and marginalised those who came to Galatia, teaching about the Law.

Paul’s language is intensely passionate in this letter; when he describes the earlier stage of his relationship with the Galatians, his emotions are dominant (4:12–20). They once had much goodwill towards him; he claims that they were willing to tear out their eyes and give them to him (4:15). Paul here refers to his “physical infirmity” (4:13; see also 6:17); is this infirmity the “thorn in the flesh” to which he refers at 2 Cor 12:7? Although this infirmity tested the acceptance that the Galatians felt for Paul (4:14), they did welcome him “as an angel of God” (4:14).

Now, he fears that he has become “an enemy” (4:16), yet he still feels “the pain of childbirth” for them (4:19) and admits he is perplexed about them (4:20). They “bite and devour one another” and risk consuming one another (5:15).

All of this is Paul at his most impassioned, pleading what may well be a lost cause in Galatia. He notes that they have fallen back into their pagan ways (“enslaved to beings…that are not gods”, 4:8–9), mixed with practices that seem more Jewish (“special days, and months, and seasons, and years”, 4:10). Their previous religious practices may well have contained a combination of such aspects; this phenomenon, known as syncretism, was well-known in the Hellenistic world.

Undeterred by the complexities of the debate concerning the Law in 3:1–5:1, Paul presses on to sound a further notes of liberty and unity in his letter. The call to freedom (5:1, 13) is a platform for ethical guidance, grounded in love (5:13–14), manifested in living by the spirit (5:22–26), not by the flesh (5:16– 21). This ethic requires them to “bear one another’s burdens “(6:2) and “work for the good of all” (6:10). In this way, they will become “a new creation” (6:15).

And so it is that Paul concludes, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! (6:15). The gospel which brings liberation in community (3:28) will also lead to liberation for the whole creation (6:15).

*****

Based on material in PAUL: an exploration, by John Squires and Elizabeth Raine (self-published 2014; revised 2018).

The Congregation and THE embodiment of the Church

It’s been interesting to see the recent posts relating to the 45th anniversary of the inauguration of the Uniting Church on 22 June. I saw largely positive commentary, as well as a handful of more negative observations. All in all, it was time to consider and identify some key factors, both positive, and negative.

In the midst of all of this, I am thinking that it must be time for another post about organisation and governance in the Uniting Church in Australia. So this is a blog about the word THE.

Yes, that’s right: THE. Specifically, about the meaning and significance of that little word “the” in one sentence in a church document: the Basis of Union, the founding document for the church that I belong to, the Uniting Church in Australia (formed in 1977).

The particular sentence that I intend to focus on is found in paragraph 15(a) of the Basis. It reads: The Congregation is the embodiment in one place of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping, witnessing and serving as a fellowship of the Spirit in Christ.

Now, the word “the” actually appears four times in this sentence. However, it is the second of these four occurrences that is in my focus of attention: “the embodiment”.

The, in English grammar, functions as a definitive article; it sits before a noun and gives shape, specificity, definition to the noun that follows. So, “the cat” refers, not just to any old cat, but to that particular cat which I can see before me, sitting on the mat (yes, that particular mat, as opposed to any old mat).

The little word “the” thus has a specifying role, defining a particular thing for our consideration, in distinction from the great mass of other things just like it that we are not considering. “The” can thus place an emphasis on the singularity and particularity of the item that is so qualified.

But “the” can also be a generalising term, placed in front of a noun without any intention to give it concerted specificity. In this instance, the word “the” just has the generalised of kind of smoothing out the sentence. “Cat sat on mat” sounds clunky. “The cat sat on the mat” has a rounder and fuller feel to it, without ever intending to refer to THIS specific cat sitting on THAT particular mat. It’s actually a generic reference to what cats do when they find a mat. ANY cat. ANY mat.

So, when we turn to the section of the Basis of Union that deals with Governance, we first should note that the Congregation is not defined as a council. The Council (that is, the governing body) in a local context is named in the Basis as “the Elders or Leaders Meeting”. In practice, it was often called “the Parish Council”.

Some time after the Basis was written, the Assembly of the UCA determined that this body would be called the Church Council. It consists of “the minister and those who are called to share with the minister in oversight”. That oversight is the governance function of the Church Council, which is clearly identified and defined as being “the council within a congregation or group of congregations”.

There are three other councils which are so identified in paragraph 15 of the Basis: the Presbytery (“the district council”), the Synod (“the regional council”), and the Assembly (“the national council”). Together with the Church Council, these four bodies have responsibility for governance, the oversight of the various matters specified and allocated to each council in turn.

Now, the Congregation is not a Council. But it is an integral part of the Church. The Basis says that it is “the embodiment in one place of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”.

Does this means that the Congregation, as “the embodiment in one place of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”, is THE one and only way, THE pre-eminent way, THE most significant way, that the church is made manifest, or embodied, in human society? I have heard and read this claim many times, over the four decades that I have been active within the church. It is a commonly held (mis)belief.

Such a claim places an inordinate amount of emphasis on that little word “the”. It invests it with a priority sense, with an exclusive connotation—this is THE Church, the one and only way that it exists. This is a huge claim.

And it is often spoken in contexts where decisions of the Presbytery, or the Synod, or the Assembly, are in contention. The implication is clear: THEY are not really the Church. THIS, the Congregation, this is the Church!

It is important to note that the Basis does not ever make this claim. It never says only the Congregation is THE church, the Congregation is the WHOLE church, and the Congregation is the NOTHING BUT the Church. Not at all.

Besides, the Basis says that the Congregation is the embodiment IN ONE PLACE of the church. Across the railway line, there is another Congregation that is the embodiment IN ONE PLACE, over there, of the church. And further away, across the river there is another Congregation that is the embodiment IN ONE PLACE, across the river, of the church. They are all embodiments of the church in their own places.

And so, with the other entities mentioned in the Basis. These entities are clearly part of the church, as well. They may well also be understood to embody the church, as each one exercises its responsibilities and carries out its duties in the prescribed areas allocated to it. They give expression to the church as much as the Congregation does.

Indeed, other entities which have developed and evolved since the time that the Basis was written (in the mid-to-late 1960s) are clearly a part of the church as well. We cannot afford to invest that little word “the” with the sum totality of what we understand the church to be. The church is also aged care facilities, preschool centres, meals for the homeless programmes and theological training colleges, chaplains to the Defence Force and chaplains to those ill and in hospital, mental health chaplains and Frontier Service Padres—and much, much more.

And the Basis also notes and defines other elements which are undoubtedly part of the church. Is the Congregation to say to the Synod, you are not part of the Church? Or to the Presbytery, you are not part of the Church? Or to the Assembly? (Yes, I can feel myself channeling Paul via 1 Cor 12!)

So I recoil when I hear or read that the Congregation is THE Church, prioritised, privileged, and exclusively THE Church. It’s not. It is an important, local, expression of what we understand the Church to be.

But the Congregation is governed by a Church Council, which is in relationship with the other Councils of the Church. It’s the Church Council which is the local council of the church, not the Congregation. And we certainly wouldn’t claim that this Council is THE embodiment of the Church, any more than we would say this of a Presbytery, or a Synod, or the Assembly. Nor is the Congregation. Each of these bodies is, in some way, an expression of the Church; and each, by the provisions found in the Constitution, has its own set of responsibilities.

In the end, the Congregation is ONE of the manifestations, or embodiments, if the Church, related to each of the other manifestations and expressions and embodiments of the Church, seen through the various bodies, agencies, gatherings, and councils of the Church.

A personal postscript: I have a clear and firm commitment to the life of the Congregation, having participated actively for over 40 years in the life of seven congregations in Australia (and three more whilst studying in the USA, and in a Methodist Circuit whilst living for a year in the UK). During that time I have been a member of four Church Councils, two times a Treasurer, and once a Church Council chairperson.

Much of the time I have done those roles whilst being engaged in fulltime theological education and presbytery oversight roles. My current position is fully focussed on resourcing, supporting, encouraging, and even challenging Congregations and Church Councils in their life, service, and witness.

I’ve been privileged to have been a member of a Congregation which had a strong Congregational heritage. In fact, it was the home Congregation of the sole Congregationalist lay member of the Joint Commission on Church Union, Maynard Davies. I understand that Mr Davies was the member who pressed for the inclusion of paragraph 11 in the Basis of Union.

That’s the paragraph that affirms that the Uniting Church will remain open to new insights which emerge from scientific thinkers, historical researchers, our encounter with other cultural customs, and our engagement with people from societies different from our own.

This, of course, is a really important element in the theology and practice of the UCA—from this strong Congregational heritage, a progressive and engaged church has developed. The policies and values that have been promulgated by Synods and Assemblies over the decades owe much to this commitment, and to the ongoing work that has been done within “the wider church” in such areas. All from a strong Congregational ethos!

So I think it is entirely possible to value the local expression of church whilst engaging in and supporting broader expressions. All of this is us, as we say.

Perverting and confusing, biting and devouring, bewitched and confused (Gal 5; Pentecost 3C)

The lectionary is currently providing a short series of excerpts from one of Paul’s earliest letters—the one he wrote to the Galatians, possibly in the late 40s, more likely (in my view) by the middle of the 50s.

This letter is distinctive in a couple of ways. The audience is not a gathering of believers in one city (as in Thessalonians, or Philippi, or Corinth, or even Rome), but the various communities of believers across the whole region of Galatia, which was one of the Roman provinces in the area we today call Turkey.

A second distinctive feature is that this letter completely omits any of the “friendly overture” elements that are typically found at the start of the letters widely recognised as the authentic letters of Paul. Many of these letters, after the requisite formalities (Paul, to the believers in X, grace and peace to you), contain a prayer of thanksgiving: “we always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly …” (1 Thess 1:2–10); “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus …” (1 Cor 1:4–9), “when I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus …” (Phlmn 4–7); “first, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world …” (Rom 1:8-15); and in the letter known as “the friendly letter”, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you …” (Phil 1:3–11).

The second letter to the Corinthians replaces this prayer of thanksgiving with an extended blessing: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction …” (2 Cor 1:3–7); that pattern is followed by the anonymous scribe who wrote decades later, modelling his circular letter on earlier Pauline examples, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places …” (Eph 1:3–14), just as the unknown person who crafted a letter to Colossae likewise followed the model of the earlier prayers of thanksgiving: “in our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints …” (Col 1:3–14).

The letter to the Galatians has no indication, either of a prayer of thanksgiving, or of a blessing. Instead, this letter cuts right to the chase, in direct words which accuse and denounce: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel … there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ … if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” (Gal 1:6–9). The letter continues swiftly, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal 1:10).

*****

This opening accusation is reflected in words that we find in the section offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (5:1, 13–25) when, five chapters after this direct opening, Paul rounds back on his audience, declaring that “if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (5:15).

In a striking juxtaposition, however, the letter continues on from this warning, to provide a contrast, which has become well-known, between “the desires of the flesh” (5:16–21) and “the fruit of the Spirit” (5:22–26).

I have no doubt that most, if not all, sermons that are preached on this lectionary offering will focus primarily, if not exclusively, on the nine qualities identified as the fruit of the Spirit, namely, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (5:22-23).

Swimming against the tide, I intended to reflect here, not on the fruit of the Spirit, but on those earlier words, about “biting and devouring one another”.

(I have written an earlier reflection on one of those fruits, gentleness, at https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/)

To understand the reason for Paul’s direct words, we need to understand the presumed situation in Galatia which he was addressing. We can glean a number of clues about this from references and statements in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

It is evident from Paul’s opening comments that other teachers had visited the Galatian community, and had taught them things that were at odds with what Paul was teaching. He derogatively labels them as “some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (1:7), and later as those who have “bewitched” the Galatians (3:1) and, by inference, those who “prevented [them] from obeying the truth” (5:7). As a result, he calls the Galatians “foolish” (3:1) and expresses a wish that “those who unsettle you would castrate themselves” (5:12).

These teachers, in Paul’s opinion, proclaim “a gospel contrary to what you received” (1:9)—namely, what Paul himself had taught them, when he had earlier visited the Galatians, a time “when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods” (4:8). The Galatians turned from their gentile faith to adopt faith in Jesus, by which “you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (4:9). It is “for freedom [that] Christ has set us free” (5:1). See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/15/for-freedom-christ-has-set-us-free-galatians-pentecost-2c-3c-4c/

*****

If we knew precisely who the Galatians were, what group of teachers had been active amongst them, or what specific matters caused Paul to write this letter, we might be better placed to adjudicate on this matter. Unfortunately, we do not have specific information about the identity of the addressees of this letter or their location.

Acts indicates that Paul had preached in a number of locations in Galatia: initially with Barnabas he visited Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14–52), Iconium (14:1–5), Lystra (14:6–20) and Derbe (14:6, 21–23). Subsequently he revisited the area, once passing through swiftly with Timothy, saying nothing (16:6), and later going “from place to place” in the region, “strengthening the disciples” (18:23).

In the first two cities there were Jews who were opposed to the preaching of Paul and Barnabas: they persecuted them in Antioch and attempted to stone them in Iconium. However, such figures are common in Acts, for in almost every place Paul encounters such Jewish opposition. We learn no specifics of the Galatian churches from the Acts accounts.

Paul argues that the gospel he proclaims brings believers into the unity of being “one in Christ” (3:28). This unity overshadows all divisions—as the most famous words in this letter declare, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (3:28). See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/19/inclusion-welcome-unity-gal-3-pentecost-2c/

The threat against this unity has arisen through the insistence of these teachers, that true faith requires, first, circumcision. This is the group which Paul calls “the circumcision faction” (2:12; compare Acts 15:1, 5). They are the ones whom Paul blames for the destructive behaviour of the believers in Galatia, as they bite and devour one another, because they have been (in Paul’s view) bewitched and confused. (So much for the wonderful days of the “golden era” of the early church … … …)

Paul has much to say about the teaching of these people, identifying circumcision as the central issue, but actually dealing with a whole set of matters regarding the place of the Jewish Torah, the law, in the communities which recognised Jesus as Messiah. Paul comes back to this is his final chapter of the letter, which is what the lectionary offers us on the Sunday after next … so more musings on that, next week.

Refugee Week 2022: a time to seek Healing

Refugee Week is held each year, providing an opportunity to highlight aspects of the refugee experience and help the broader community to understand what it is like to be a refugee.

This year, Refugee Week runs from Sunday 19 June to Saturday 25 June. Healing is the theme of Refugee Week 2022. This theme builds on a recognition of the importance of human connections, which has been underscored by the current pandemic. 

The website for this year’s Refugee Week says, “Mainstream and refugee communities alike can draw upon shared hardship to heal wounds, to learn from each other and to move forward. Healing can occur through storytelling, through community and also through realisation of our intrinsic interconnectedness as individuals.”

The first Refugee Week events were organised in Sydney in 1986 by Austcare (Australians Caring for Refugees). Austcare’s mission is to assist refugees overseas, displaced people and those affected by landmines to rebuild their lives, through the expert delivery of development programs in partnership with local communitities and other agencies.

In 1987, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) became a co-organiser of the week, and the week became a national event from 1988. RCOA took on responsibility for the national coordination of Refugee Week from 2004.

According to the UNHCR, the United Nation’s Refugee Agency, there are now 89.3 million forcibly displaced people, as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order in their countries of origin. (A year ago, the figure was 82.4 million forcibly displaced people.)

35 million of these people are children, aged under 18 years. 1 million of these children were born as refugees; in the years 2018 to 2020, an average of between 290,000 and 340,000 children were born into a refugee life per year.

Over half of these people (53.2 million) are classified as “internally displaced”, meaning that they are homeless within their own country. 27.1 million are officially classified as refugees, meaning that they are “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” This is the definition in the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees—an international agreement which Australia signed in 1951, the year it was published.

These statistics, from the UNHCR, illustrate
the significant rise, globally, of displaced people,
refugees, and asylum seekers in the past decade.

A further 4.6 million people are classified as asylum seekers. Under Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum The 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits states from imposing penalties on those entering ‘illegally’ who come directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened. (Terms such as ‘illegals’, ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘boat people’ are both inaccurate and unhelpful—even though they appear in the media with saddening regularity, they are terms that should be avoided.)

See https://www.unhcr.org/en-au/1951-refugee-convention.html

More than two thirds of all refugees currently under the UNHCR’s mandate come from just five countries: the Syrian Arabic Republic (6.7 million), Venezuela (4.0 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.2 million), and Myanmar (1.1 million).

The countries which are currently hosting the most number of refugees are Turkey (3.6 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Germany (1.1 million), Sudan (just over 1 million), and the Islamic Republic of Iran (just under 1 million). Developing countries host 86 per cent of the world’s refugees, and the Least Developed Countries provide asylum to 27 per cent of the total.

In the last full year (2020–2021), Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program was set at 13,750 places. We willingly accept this amount of incoming refugees, and recognise the value that such people do bring to the Australian society. we have fallen victim to the fear pedalled by unscrupulous elements in society, and in government, over the past decade, about the “hordes” of people seeking the safety of refuge in ur country.

In Australia, the most enduring myth about people seeking asylum is that most arrive by boat. They don’t. The clear fact is that most people seeking asylum arrive by air. It’s time for us to throw overboard the fear of people who come here seeking refuge and asylum on boats, and recognise that the fear fuelled by right-wing agitators over the past decade has not served us well at all.

Adhering to the provisions of the Refugee Convention, as a,country, would be an excellent step,for us to take this year. That would be a significant step towards Healing in our national life.

See stories and additional statistics at https://www.refugeeweek.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/RCOA-Refugee-Myths-and-Facts-2022-WEB.pdf

Inclusion. Welcome. Unity. (Gal 3; Pentecost 2C)

My sermon for the 45th anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia, preached at the Tuggeranong Uniting Church on 19 June 2022

*****

On the Sunday closest to 22 June every year, across this continent, people gather to celebrate the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia. And as it happens, today the lectionary offers us a section of one of Paul’s letters, from our New Testament, which is quite relevant. It’s from the latter part of chapter 3 of his letter to the church in Galatia.

It is good to have this passage as our focus. It speaks to who we want to be, together, as the church. It is a word for our times. In fact, I think that this passage could well express the fundamental calling of the Uniting Church. It taps into many of those key things that are at the heart of our DNA as the UCA. (You might have read what I wrote about this in the newsletter this week, or on our website; see https://tuc.org.au/conversations/the-dna-of-the-uca/)

Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written in the midst of an intense and ferocious debate within the early movement that had been started by Jesus. It was a time of great transition. Things were changing. Old practices were being challenged. New practices were being proposed.

In Galatia, a region in the area we today would call Turkey, the communities of new believers were practising Circumcision as a sign of their faith in Jesus. That was how Jewish people had long signalled their faith, by circumcising their infant males. Jesus himself was circumcised. So it made sense to the believers in Galatia to require that any males who professed faith in Jesus would be circumcised.

This practice came under criticism. In Galatia, as in many other places where the good news of the Jesus movement had been proclaimed, baptism was being proposed as a new ritual, to mark the new faith of the growing numbers of the followers of Jesus.

The argument about circumcision has behind it the issue as to how much, or how little, of the Jewish Law should apply to believers within that movement – those whom we now call the early Christians. This was an incredibly contentious issue at the time, which caused much dispute. Galatians is a letter that was written in the heat of this intense debate; so, at many points, it bears more evidence of rash fury than it does of considered reflection on the part of Paul.

Paul’s language in Galatians is ferocious. He accuses the Galatian believers of being fools who have been bewitched by deceivers; he attacks them for biting and devouring one another; he criticises them for urging Gentile converts to be circumcised and to adopt full adherence to the Torah. This is no gentle, reflective spiritual meditation; this is full-on partisan polemics! Nevertheless, it is part of the collection of letters that were included, long ago, in the canon of our scriptures. We are called to hear it, read it, and reflect on it.

So it is wonderful to find, right within the midst of this turbulent flow of argument and disputation, that we come across comments that do provide cause for reflection; ideas that do invite deeper consideration; insights that do offer the opportunity for spiritual growth to those who would read, ponder, and reflect.

In today’s passage, we find these two well-known verses from the third chapter of this letter: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).

Here, Paul sets out a vision for people of faith; a vision for believers within community; we would say, a vision for the church. It could well be our central mission statement, as the Uniting Church in Australia, for we so much value grace-filled inclusiveness, we so strongly reject divisive and judgemental stances, we so yearn to live in accord with this grand vision, where all belong to a welcoming and loving community.

It is a vision that should resonate with us here at Tuggeranong. In this congregation, we work to ensure that people are welcomed and included. The door is open to all who want to walk through it and gather with us. And such people do walk through the door: people of Anglo heritage, of Islander heritage, of Indian and Asian heritage; people of mature age, those “in their prime” (yes, that’s most of us!), those who participate regularly in Girls’ Brigade, and those in the very early years of their lives.

In the fellowship of this congregation, we have people who identify as heterosexual and those who identify as homosexual; those who have transitioned genders, those who are intersex, those who prefer the pronoun “they” to “he” or “she”. Rainbow Christian Alliance offers a safe place for such folks, as well as this morning worship gathering. We have in our midst people for whom life has been a struggle, and those who have been blessed with good health and happy relationships throughout.

People from this Tuggeranong congregation offer ministry to those at Karralika who are grappling with issues in their life, to those who are finding it hard to make ends meet and value the opportunities to shop at Red Dove, or to collect food parcels, and to those who simply want a weekly time of friendly companionship over a meal. All of these activities, and more, indicate that we are open, welcoming, inclusive. This resonates with the vision of the church that Paul long ago articulated.

And it indicates that we are, as we have prayed earlier, heading towards being a church that “dreams ambitiously, loves with purpose, and dances with danger … that lives the politics of the kingdom and discovers the beauty of humanity, that loves to bless the stranger … and has courage to step out in faith … as God’s companions on this way”. [Prayer by Rocky Hamilton, abbotsford.org.uk]

Paul’s vision of the church is one of harmony, inclusion, unity. Yet some were clinging to the old practices, of circumcision, while others were seeking to move on, through practising baptism. Paul envisages great changes within the community of faith, because of Jesus. If the people in Galatia had failed to achieve this change, nevertheless the vision stood firm; Paul envisaged a community that would bring together strikingly disparate opposites.

In this community, the religious differences of Jew and Gentile would matter no more; the different levels of social status, of people living in freedom and those serving as slaves, would become irrelevant; and the societal roles and expectations associated with the gender of a person—male or female—would no longer function as dominant. These three conditions of difference would melt away, within the community of faith, into a cohesive unity of co-operation and interconnection. This was a huge change to take place all those centuries ago.

Indeed, as we ponder these three key instances of the way in which difference would disappear, we might even push it further: is this vision not simply one for the church, but even one for society as a whole? Might it be that the vision, the hope, which Paul set out in his letter to the Galatians, could be brought about within the patterns of living and relating right across his society? Was Paul passionate, not only about partisan points of religious practice, but also – and more significantly – about visionary ideals for human society as a whole?

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – this unity within the church might well become a model for harmony within society. Certainly, that is the way that the church has interpreted this statement in the centuries since Paul wrote it.

The church of the late first century continued the battle begun in the time of Paul; over time, Jews and gentiles were equally welcomed within most of the faith communities of the ancient world.

The church of the Enlightenment was at the forefront of the movement to end the slave trade, to enable black Africans to live unhindered by white masters seeking to profit from selling them as slaves.

And the western church from the later part of the 20th century onwards has been active alongside many other community organisations to ensure that the opportunities available to women were not less than those available to men.

In each of these battles, the church at large has understood Paul’s words to the Galatians to be words for both the church, and for the society as a whole. It is a grand vision. Today in our society, we are pursuing this vision particularly in relation to gender and sexual identity, a conversation which has been to the fore in society in recent years, a conversation in which the Uniting Church has played a key role as a faith organisation.

Inclusion. Welcome. Unity. One in Christ Jesus. May this be a reality for us, in this community of faith, and amongst the people of the place where you live, sleep, eat, work, and rest.

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).

*****

See also

The voice of the Lord in the words of the prophets (the season of Pentecost in Year C)

Each year in the long season that stretches “after Pentecost”, the lectionary offers us selections from the prophetic literature of Hebrew Scripture, as companions to the Gospel readings from the orderly account of Luke. It is Luke’s narrative which most directly depicts Jesus speaking as God’s prophet (Luke 7:16; 24:19; Acts 2:30; 3:22).

Many of the prophets of Israel remind us that they speak forth “the voice of the Lord” (Isa 66:6; Jer 42:5–6; Dan 9:9–10; Mic 6:9; Hag 1:12; Zech 6:15). Jesus stands in this tradition, offering words of guidance, challenge, and judgement. He is the way by which, “in these last days, God … has spoken to us” (Heb 1:1–2).

This year, Sunday by Sunday, we are listening to “the voice of the Lord” mediated through a number of prophetic words. In the coming Sundays, the lectionary offers us stories of prophetic voices speaking to the people of the northern kingdom during the 9th and 8th centuries BCE.

We begin with sections relating to Elijah and Elisha, two great prophets who figure prominently in the history-like narratives of 1—2 Kings (Pentecost 2–4). Elijah encounters God, not in wind or earthquake or fire, but in “a sound of sheer silence” in a cave, where he gains clarity about his task (1 Kings 19:9– 15). Elisha picks the mantle of Elijah after he is taken up (2 Kings 2:13) and demonstrates this as he heals Naaman (2 Kings 5:8–14).

Next, we turn to Amos (Pentecost 5 and 6). Amos, the shepherd of Tekoa, humbly defers “I am no prophet” (Amos 7:14); nevertheless, he castigates those in Israel who “trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land” (Amos 8:4). His most famous prophetic word is the call for “justice and righteousness” (Amos 5:22).

Hosea (Pentecost 7 and 8) was also active in the northern kingdom. The fractured relationship between Israel and the Lord God is mirrored in the naming of his children: “God sows”, “not pitied”, “not my people” (1:2–9). Yet Hosea sings of the love of the Lord for Israel, who “led them with cords of human kindness”, and assures them that God will not abandon them (Hosea 11:1–11). Nevertheless, soon after his long period as prophet, that kingdom would fall.

Then follows is a brief foray (Pentecost 9 and 10) to hear the words of a major and significant prophet of the southern kingdom, Isaiah, who was active from 742 BCE onwards. Isaiah criticises the sinfulness of the people (Isa 1:10-20) and exhorts the people to “learn to do good, seek justice” (Isa 1:17). The vivid “love-song concerning a vineyard” culminates in a potent condemnation that the Lord “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry” (Isa 5:1–7). This cry is a consistent prophetic message.

Then follows a series of passages from the great prophet Jeremiah (Pentecost 11–18). Jeremiah had the misfortune of being called to prophesy just at the time when Israel was crumbling and would be overrun by the Babylonians and sent into exile (721 BCE). He was called to declare words from the Lord, “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10).

Jeremiah is famous for his series of laments about the fate of Jerusalem (“how lonely sits the city … how like a widow she has become”, Lam 1:1); we hear two excerpts from Lamentations at Pentecost 17. In these words, we are invited into the experience of deep lament through the poetic wails of this prophet, as he first envisages, and then experiences, the devastation of exile.

Yet Jeremiah comes to terms with life in a foreign land, amongst people of different customs, speaking a different language, eating different foods, worshipping different gods. He leaves behind the laments of not being in the land that God gave the people; instead, he encourages his fellow-exiles to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile … build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce; take wives and have sons and daughters” (Jer 29:5–7), for the Lord “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer 29:11).

Nevertheless, Jeremiah also speaks a damning word over the people; God, he says, “is a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you” (Jer 18:11). How are we to hear and receive this striking word of the Lord? Yet the prophet “redeems” himself, perhaps, with the famous declaration about “the new covenant … I will write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:31–34)—a passage that a number of New Testament writers refer to in their portrayal of Jesus instigating a “new covenant”.

After Jeremiah, we visit famous words about “the time to come”, spoken by a number of prophets. Joel (Pentecost 20) describes the terrors of the coming time, yet promises that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32). Habakkuk (Pentecost 21) laments “destruction and violence”, yet declares “a vision for the appointed time—the righteous live by their faith” (Hab 1:3–4; 2:3–4).

Haggai (Pentecost 22), living in a time of drought, “spoke to the people with the Lord’s message: I am with you” (Hag 1:10–11, 13). And a much later voice, active well after the return from exile (collected at the end of the book of Isaiah), affirms that God is “about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17; Pentecost 23).

These voices sounded forth long ago; their message resonates still with us today. The call for justice and righteousness undergirds the entire narrative of the people of Israel, from the call attributed to Moses in Deut 16:20, “justice, and only justice, shall you follow”; through the words of Amos and Isaiah, into the declarations of Jeremiah and a number of the “minor prophets”.

In the later scriptures in the New Testament, we hear resonances from many of these selected passages in Hebrew Scripture. Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth, stands in this tradition and speaks “the voice of the Lord”, so the call for justice and righteousness sits at the heart of who we are, as people of faith, heirs of this tradition, in the 21st century. As we read and hear these prophetic passages week after week, we are invited to reflect more deeply on how these ancient words, particular to their original time and place, can yet be for us the word of God to us, in our time, in our place.

See further at https:// johntsquires.com/2021/08/16/justice-and-only-justice-you-shall-follow/